It's funny … life can sneak up on you. Your own life can do that. Because when you're inside all the weird stressful awful things that are happening, you can't see the big picture.
But when you finally realize, when you get a chance, a glimpse, to really see the mess you've made … it's like it's happening all over again, only more terrible because you can see that, bad as you thought it was before, it's much, much worse when you see just how much wreckage is in the middle of your life.
Some of my friends were dead. Some of them didn't remember me (or remember a different me) because I accidentally changed the timeline. Some of them were well on their way to insanity, and some of them never, ever wavered in their love and loyalty to me, not for a second. Not for a blink.
Stepping back, thinking about that … it's so fucking depressing, you know?
Which brings me to milk-shake time.
"Smoothies aren't going to do it," I announced, heading for the freezer for my go-to staple: half a gallon of Breyers Vanilla Fudge Twirl. Predeath, my go-to had been Hershey bars with almonds, or my mom's risotto. I had been a simple, uncomplicated girl. Once.
Adding to my annoyance (which had never been difficult, since I had always been a bitchy girl), I first had to haul out half a dozen bottles of Tina's weird, weird vodkas before I could extract the Precious. Just reading the labels was enough to make me shudder, but I also had to handle the things: hot pepper, three olives (like one olive wasn't vile enough), root beer (good God!), triple-shot espresso (so you could take something that will make you sleepy and spazz you out at the same time), Absolut LA (which boasted acai and blueberry, and thus was good for you, except for the fact that it was alcohol, which is poisonous), and plenty others too hideous to mention, all nestled together like some unholy frozen army of booze. No, wait … Three Olives was a brand, not a flavor. The flavor was tomato. Why, why had someone decided to invent flavored vodka? This changed nothing!
Finally, after a nice crop of frostbite was no doubt gonna show up any second, I found my go-to and restacked all the booze … upside down, so Tina would have to reach in and haul each one out to check the flavor. Ha! More proof that it doesn't pay to mess with the vampire queen. My wickedness and lust for cold-blooded vengeance were endless.
The door swung in, and there was Jessica. For a woman who claimed she couldn't hear me when I tried to explain why it was perfectly okay for a woman in her last trimester to wear high heels, she had no trouble hearing the fridge or freezer open from several rooms, or blocks, away. "Oh boy," she said, seeing the blender and ice cream. "Pretty serious, huh?"
"Yeah, so let me get to work and then we'll have a family meeting."
It was out before I realized I'd thought it, never mind said it. And it was fine. Better than fine: it was right. Family meeting. Well … yeah. If these guys weren't my family, what was any of it for? Jessica had always been my sister, and Nick loved me (I was pretty sure … he didn't hate and fear me, at least) because Jessica did, and I knew Tina loved me, too.
Maybe even Garrett, the Fiend formerly known as George, and his girlfriend, the bitchy werewolf Antonia, did. (What? She was a werewolf. And she was also bitchy. Grumpiest person I had ever, ever met. Because in death, I was fated to be surrounded by weirdos.)
For sure they liked me. I didn't think that was my considerable vanity talking, either: they'd moved from their lives to our lives to hell and then back to our lives. Of course, I did rescue Antonia from hell, so maybe that's why they were hanging around, but like I said, that prob'ly meant they liked me. Or at least didn't loathe and fear me. (I'll take it. Believe me. And how sad is that?)
As for Sink Lair, his love had never been in question, though I was too bubble-brained and pissed to catch on right away, or realize I loved him back with everything. So, yep, my husband absolutely loved me.
(I wasn't quite sure about my sister Laura, the Antichrist.)
The coolest thing was how Jessica didn't blink, or pause. Just took a step back while holding the kitchen door and yelled, "Milk shakes, idiots!"
I had to take a few seconds and pretend to be busy dumping scoops of ice cream into the blender, so she couldn't see my face. I didn't leak tears anymore, but any girlfriend can tell at a glance when you're upset or touched or pissed.
After a few seconds I was able to turn my back when I went to the fridge, and no longer had to pretend. Because now I had a whole new problem: where were my candy bars? My precious delectable Hershey bars, always kept in the fridge (room temp chocolate = yuck) so I could chop them and dump them into a blender with the Precious and a generous splash of whole milk, were not in their appointed spot!
"This is not the right time for me to deal with this," I growled, pawing past gallons of milk, some sticks of butter, Jessica's vile ginger ale (with actual lumps of ginger in it, which did not belong in ginger ale!), a few boxes of leftover Chinese takeout (who was eating that, I had no idea), a bottle of blueberry vodka (what, the freezer wasn't enough, fer Chrissake?), a box of Godiva cookies (pretty decent chocolate, but useless for my needs), and a couple of tins of Giselle's cat food. Ouch. Another of my many character flaws: I was a little slow to do my share of the upkeep around here.
"All right, first off, remind me to clean out the fridge," I said into the fridge, still hunting. "This is just sad, and also gross. And second, if one of you amoral thieving shitheads filched my Hershey's, there will be blood on the streets, I swear it, blood on the st-oh, there they are." Why they were in the door slot for eggs I did not know and did not give one shit.
I heard the fwoomp of the kitchen door swinging open, and looked up in time to see Antonia and Garrett walk in. Sinclair and Jessica were right behind them, and Nick/Dick was behind them.
"Oh, good," I said, grateful. Sometimes it could take over half an hour just to round everybody up.
"Uh-oh," Nick said, eyeing the Precious and grinning. It was weird that he didn't hate me in this timeline. The way I remembered it, he had made Jessica pick between him and me … and she picked me! (I couldn't believe it, either.) But that had never happened now. So … had it never happened? Even though I could remember? Because it was so awkward and awful? Ow, I'm hurting my brain. "Bringing out the big guns, vampire queen."
And that! What was that? He said it, but not in a mean way. In a happy way. Like me being a vampire was a good thing. Like it hadn't ruined his life.
I don't like being confused and angry!
"You keep shooting me these incredulous glances," he continued (happily!). "I take it in the old timeline we weren't close?"
"Uh, she wasn't pregnant, and you weren't living here." To put it mildly. Also, I accidentally tortured you and then my husband did, too. Oops! "But we've got weirder problems."
"Yeah. Like how she's not dead anymore." He pointed at Antonia, who'd gone to the booze freezer for a drink, and was now knocking back espresso vodka in a milk glass.
"Weirder than that, even."
Antonia chortled in mid-gulp. Her black rat's-nest hair was its usual unkempt mess … on a good day, Antonia looked like a witch having a bad day. Not that she wasn't gorgeous-she was. Sickeningly so, what with the black masses of tumbled and tousled hair and the pale skin and the burning werewolf-y eyes. But she was weird. All werewolves were.
"Not weirder than that," Jessica mock-gasped. "Nothing could be weirder than that."
"What's weird about it? I left. Now I'm back. Don't throw me a party."
Antonia glanced around. "Where's Tina?"
See, see? Nothing about Marc being dead. Nothing about hell. Just "time for booze and then I think I'll bang my man for a while, don't wait up and ha ha, I scored more free vodka off Tina, and oh by the way, where is she?"
"Everything's better now," Garrett said with a sweet smile. But I expected his reaction, too. Garrett was a little … off. He'd been a Fiend (a vampire deliberately starved until it went feral and bitchy) for decades, and had been dead going on a hundred years. That had shattered any vibrancy of personality he'd ever had in life. He'd been a shell of a vamp until Antonia swooped into his pants. I mean, his life.
Garrett looked at the world with envious simplicity: life without Antonia wasn't worth living. Antonia was back. Knit one, purl two. All was well. Again: envious simplicity.
But I was starting to wonder. We sometimes wrote him off as a mindless savage who can cast on, knit, and then purl while blindfolded. But I tended to forget, even though he brings out my protective side, that Garrett wasn't a kid, and hadn't been one for close to a hundred years. And if I ever wanted to make my very own serial killer, putting someone through all that Garrett had endured was as close to a fool-proof recipe as I could get. I knew there wasn't much he wouldn't do to protect Antonia. I also knew he was a liar and a coward.
I guess seeing the Marc Thing a few days ago was giving me some unwanted perspective on "it's always the quiet ones." And this is the part where, if this was a movie and I was a sensible (yet hot) heroine, I'd make a vow to "get to the bottom of this." Then I'd haul out another chestnut by adding, "This isn't over." By which I'd really mean, it's over. I mean, who has the energy?
Spreadsheets. That's what we needed. Some kind of written record of all the weird stuff we should never lose track of no matter how busy or life-or-death things got. Then when things were settled (however briefly), I could look on my Spreadsheet O'Evil and Scary and say, "That's right, I caught Garrett in some lies and he tricked me into going to hell and I also know he's killed more people than Hot Pockets … maybe we should follow up and do a little investigation?"
It would be easy! Which was the flaw. Too easy, if anything, because such things tended to get shoved out of my brain when the Big Bad of the week reared its-
"-much of a problem, right?"
"Yeah, but with this particular problem," I said, "it's time to get moving. We can't just lie around working on spreadsheets, people!"
"Never mind. Here it is: I've been sitting around long enough."
"Does this have anything to do with how much you hate Thanksgiving?" Nick/Dick asked.
"Don't speak to me about That Holiday."
"Does this mean you're not going to make a cornucopia for the dining room?"
"I'd rather gargle gasoline and then light up a cigarette."
Sinclair laughed. "What an … interesting mental image that makes."
"And I'll save plenty of gas for you, too," I threatened. My parents had gotten divorced in November. Jessica's parents were killed in November. The Ant was born in November! April was not the cruelest month. "So you'd better stay on your toes, pal."
"This," my husband commented, sounding not at all perturbed at the thought of being burned alive, "will be the third time this week I have fallen in love with the queen all over again."
"And it's only Saturday," Jessica pointed out.
"Is it really?" I was amazed. It felt like eight years had gone by. Too much happening and not much time to soak it up. "Oh, crap. So Thanksgiving is next week already?" No wonder my teeth were on edge. "God, that sounds ominous. It's a whole damn holiday lurking in next week's calendar. Just waiting to pounce."
"It's turkey and football," Nick/Dick said, exasperated.
"With a side helping of genocide," Antonia snickered. She had by now drained her glass. "You think it's bad here? Try New England this time of year. It's all Thanksgiving and Pilgrims all the time out there."
"Gross," I said, appalled. Ye gods, I'd never thought of it, but she was right: Thanksgiving must be pure heck if you hated it and yet were surrounded by it. "Remind me to count my blessings."
"Why?" She was rolling sky blue yarn so fast her fingers were a blur. "You never do, anyway."
"Can we get back to the matter at hand if it's not too much trouble? Like I said, weird stuff is going on, and it's time to fix it. We're gonna fix it so hard…"
"What are we fixing?" Garrett asked. For him, that was practically a speech. A Gettysburg Address, even.
"Don't think I've forgotten about you," I warned, "but with Marc dead, I've gotta have my focus-"
"What are we fixing?" Nick/Dick interrupted. "Because this conversation is already making me nervous."
"Don't be nervous! Okay, I've gotta-remind me to talk to you guys about a spreadsheet later, but for now, there's nothing to be nervous about. 'Betsy can fix it' doesn't necessarily always translate to 'Betsy accidentally destroyed the relationship/mansion/Eastern Sea board/world." A short silence followed. "What? It doesn't. But I think I've got a good shot at fixing it."
"Fixing what? A spreadsheet?"
"Not Marc being dead," Jessica said, an expression of reproach on her face. "You're not talking about that."
"Oh yes I am." I must have been wearing one of those incredulous expressions Nick talked about. "What else do you think would be on my mind? The new Manolos? The fact that, incomprehensibly, Christian Louboutin doesn't exist in this timeline?"
Nick wasn't looking at me. Neither was Sinclair. Antonia tossed the now-round ball of yarn into Garrett's bag and began rolling a new ball of yarn. Garrett was carefully crocheting … uh … something red and blue and big (too big to be a potholder, too small to be a blanket … maybe a grill cover?). His lap was full of yarn; his entire attention appeared to be on the whatever-it-was he was making.
Only Jessica, who'd put up with my bushwah for almost two decades, had the courage to look me in the face and say, "Yeah, kinda. Why wouldn't you be worrying about shoes and their designers?"
"Well, you're totally wrong because … okay, that's a good point about Christian, but I can't fix that." Probably I couldn't fix it. I'd look into it, sure, but one nightmare at a time. "Marc, now, Marc maybe I can fix. I'm gonna try, at least."
"Hello! Queen of the vampires? Power over all the dead, or however the saying goes? Ring-a-ding-dinging a bell?"
"Not 'why,' why you? 'Why,' why would you do that?"
"Why wouldn't I do that?" Was Jessica's unborn baby eating her brain? She was normally quicker on the uptake. Was it just me, or were we all talking in riddles?
"Have you thought you might respect his choice?" Nick asked quietly.
"A braver man than I," Sinclair said, rolling his big dark eyes heavenward.
"Ah, shaddup already from you. Listen, Nick-"
"Stop it. Detective Berry, Marc killed himself because he was scared, I get that."
"Don't talk…" I paused as Jessica judiciously hit the blender, which hummed and brayed and whirred for a good thirty seconds, an endless time in which my friends and I glared at each other. This hadn't taken long to get nasty. For me to turn it nasty, I guess it'd be fair to say. I continued as she poured milk shakes, as everyone took hasty slurps. "… like I'm stupid."
"No, we wouldn't want to do that." Like that! See? There was the Nick/Dick I knew, not the Mr. Happy Cop I'd been dealing with.
"Sure he was scared. He was scared of being the Marc Thing," I said, assuming the baby had also been dining on Nick's teeny brain cells as well. "Not scared to keep living. He loved it here."
"Betsy, you met him when he was about to jump off a building!"
"Well, yeah." Anything sounded bad when you said it like that. "But then he was better."
"Oh, so you cured his chronic depression? Is that one of your superpowers now?"
Hmm, no. But wouldn't it be cool? "Anything sounds bad when you say it-"
"He was a borderline alcoholic who couldn't stay sober. He was a gay man who never dated, a man who had no relationship with his father, his only family."
"We're his family."
He wasn't listening. He was leaning so far forward his suit jacket was open and I could see the gun clipped to his belt. "This was an unhappy man. For God's sake-sorry, Sinclair-I mean, for crying out loud, just let him rest in peace."
"Stop talking about him in the past tense!" Somehow I was on my feet and Nick/Dick was on his, and had backed up. Sinclair had moved across the table and was standing at my side, almost ready to block me. Like I was going to hurt Dickie/Nickie. And Antonia was now standing in front of me, like Dickie/Nickie was going to hurt me. I think it'd be safe to say we were all temporarily freaked.
"It seems I have not arrived in the nick of time," Tina said, standing in the kitchen doorway, holding it open with tented fingers and totally stealing that line from Practical Magic.